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In Georgia, the governor has a high degree of influence over spending for higher education. The outgoing Gov. Nathan Deal, shown here speaking in Atlanta in April, 2017, signed a bill early this year that offered some need-based aid for low-income students. Credit: DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM

The governor’s race in Georgia was among the most closely watched on Election Day, and although education got drowned out by other campaign issues, whoever wins will have a big impact on the state’s university system – and new research shows how.

The state’s governor has more influence than most on how affordable both public and private universities can be, because of the budget process and state aid program there.

A report released two weeks before the election portrays two Georgia university systems, split along racial and class lines. It also finds that the state’s universities and colleges are among the least affordable in the nation. And Georgia’s financial aid program “persistently gives the majority of its financial breaks to affluent families – with fewer opportunities for Blacks, Hispanics, and the poor,” according to the report from the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education.

On one hand, Georgia boasts some of the most respected research universities in the country, with graduation rates that are the envy of many other states. But the regional state colleges and universities lack not only the prestige but the resources of their state siblings, even though their student populations require more financial and academic support. Uneven Progress, Uncertain Future, issued by Penn’s Institute for Research on Higher Education, details how admission to the educational jewels in Georgia’s crown varies starkly by race and income level. It also argues that the next governor could greatly affect affordability and graduation rates.

“Georgia’s incoming governor will have an immense amount of control over the higher education system in the state, and therefore its workforce and economic future,” said Joni Finney, executive director of IRHE and co-author of the report.

That power is partly due to the state’s General Assembly schedule – it meets for only 40 days out of the year, and the brevity of each session necessarily limits what gets passed. As in many states, the governor is responsible for proposing the budget and the legislature can make amendments. But, unlike in many states, changes made by the General Assembly cannot result in a budget larger than the governor’s estimated revenues. That means that the governor sets the ceiling on spending.

Related: Debt Without Degree: Students drown in debt despite a $524-million state surplus

Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams pledged to fund a need-based component to the state’s merit-based HOPE scholarship. She also supported making the state’s technical colleges tuition-free and promised a $100 million investment in these initiatives. Her Republican opponent, Brian Kemp, didn’t take a position on need-based aid, but he did pledge to cap state spending, which could limit increased spending on higher education.

The General Assembly will remain Republican in the next session, and conventional wisdom says that would limit budget increases. But legislators last session did pass a measure that offered some need-based aid to low-income students, showing a bipartisan recognition of the problems of college access and debt that plague the state. The month before that bill passed, The Hechinger Report published a series of stories in partnership with the Atlanta Journal Constitution that detailed the crushing level of students’ debt burden there.

“Uneven Progress” described a situation similar to what we found in our reporting. The cost of the state’s cuts to its higher education budget has fallen most heavily on low-income students: Families making less than $30,000 a year must pay 67 percent of their annual family income for college – and that’s after financial aid is taken into account.

Related: Debt Without Degree: State cuts money to higher education while student costs skyrocket

“Uneven Progress” makes the case that the lack of affordability may be connected to low graduation rates. The six-year graduation rate in Georgia dropped to 39 percent for students at public institutions, down 10 percent since 2006. Georgia now has the 47th-worst rate in the county. The report also notes that “Georgia’s college participation rates are the 45th-worst in the nation, with less than a third (31%) of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in college.”

And the racial disparity is stark: While 42 percent of white adults have at least an associate degree, the same is true for only 32 percent of African-Americans and 22 percent of Latinos.

The state’s new governor will play a big role in deciding whether those college attendance and graduation rates for its increasingly diverse population can be improved.

This story about college affordability in Georgia was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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